Europe by rail, part 9 of 11: Luxembourg

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Wasserbilig, © OpenStreetMap contributors

Luxembourg is both a city and a country; the first train station I saw in the country, on my way to the city, was Wasserbillig. The difference in architecture and styling immediately obvious, though unfortunately by this point in my journey a minor glitch in my phone’s screen had developed to the point of it being mostly unusable — I could only take photos with patience unavailable on a train journey. Some of the balconies here use glass or plastic, tinted like old fashioned red/green 3D glasses.

When I arrived, it was a short 25 minute walk from the station to my hotel. The hotel itself is cheap and run down (don’t read much into the city because of this, I was getting the cheapest place I could each time… in fact, given this was now 3 years ago, don’t reach much into the hotel either), with steep gloomy stairs and doors that were a struggle to lock and unlock. Nearby church bells rang out every hour.

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GPS trace of my second day in Luxembourg, map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

The city layout felt very strange. It took a very long time before I found a single supermarket in Luxembourg — before that, just endless restaurants and hotels, a funfair, and offices. With the benefit of hindsight, this was down to a few wrong turns on my part, and I managed to miss the entire shopping district. If my phone screen hadn’t been practically unusable at this point, I might have been able to look at the map and make better choices on where to go.

Because of that, and because the restaurants I could find on my first day were either extremely expensive or meat-based, I had to buy my first few meals from the train station.

Luxembourg City seems to be primarily French speaking, even if on paper Luxembourgish and German share the role of official language with French. Definitely worth knowing if you plan to visit.

Eventually, after too many train station sandwiches, I finally found a pizza restaurant — expensive by British standards and not very good quality food, but with pleasant service that meant even my limited grasp of French (GCSE grade D) was not a problem. On the way back to the hotel after dinner, I was waylaid by a man asking if I’d like something to smoke, and then passed by a woman who called me “honey” — I’m assuming weed and street prostitution but I never actually confirmed either as neither appeals to me.

Luxembourg feels poor. A strange situation for one of the highest GDP/capita countries in Europe the world — either 1st or 2nd place, depending on if you are measuring nominal or PPP. A few very rich people pulling up the average? Regardless, it’s very strange.

On my second day, I finally found a supermarket, going by the name “Cactus”, which I’ve never seen before or since. It’s a different style than I’m used to, and it was noteworthy how few vegetarian options there were.

Pedestrians seem poorly catered for: some hedges are so overgrown they are in danger of forcing people into the road, the paths themselves barely look wide enough for wheelchairs, and some paths just stop suddenly forcing U-turns. In retrospect, this reminds me of the USA.

Many flats here have blinds on the outside of their windows. Such things don’t exist in the UK to my knowledge, so I don’t know what they are about — security or fashion or technical advantage — but they are also widely used in Germany and Switzerland.

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Why did I take a photo of a car park from the side of a castle? Was this to illustrate how much Up there is in the city? I wish I could remember.

I passed the “Centre Convict“, wondering if the translation is as obvious as it seems. The sign was surprisingly prominent, so I still don’t know if it’s a prison, or a museum about prisons, or a parole office, or something else entirely.

Cash machines here look like they can take PIN codes much longer than 4 digits, which is a surprise to me. “Made by Diebold”, it said — now there’s an infamous name. Lots of G4S signs around, too, on the topic of infamy.

The city has a lot of height variation, and the train journey in and out has pleasant views. If you like pretty old buildings, you might like to visit it; but it wasn’t a place for me.

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Europe by rail, part 8 of 11: Oh Dieu, Köln

I’m on the train to Köln, and a woman wearing a holstered gun on her hip just walked past. From her walk and her rucksack, I’d say she looked like a normal person rather than a plain clothed police officer. (Note for non-British readers: such a thing would be unheard of in the UK, as the UK has such a strong ban on guns that even police officers are not (with a few exceptions) armed).

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Köln Hauptbahnhof and rain/foot bridge over the Rhine.
© OpenStreetMap contributors.

Köln Cathedral has a lot of interesting fiddly bits on the outside, but is also covered in an incredibly ugly layer of grime. The contrast between it and the surrounding buildings is even more extreme than for similar gothic cathedrals in the UK, and the whole thing feels wildly out of place.

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Köln Cathedral

My first need in the city was, as usual on this trip, to get to the hotel; so I didn’t stay long by the cathedral. The bridge to the east is both rail and foot, and its fences are covered in enough love locks to put the famous love lock bridge in Paris to shame. The city to the east was a mixture of pleasant architecture and brutalist shopping districts that would be immediately familiar to anyone from the UK. However, one of the nicer looking residential areas I walked through had a surprise that would shock most British people: on a residential wall, there was a billboard with two adverts, the one on the left advertising the biggest brothel in Europe (or at least, that’s what it seemed to be claiming the “Magnum Sauna Club” was), the one on the right a public health campaign to always use condoms.

 


Seeing solar panels everywhere brings me joy. It’s a feeling that yes, the world is taking climate change seriously, and actually solving things now. There is an Aldi (budget supermarket) here, with a roof covered in solar panels, and it looks like the roof was designed with those panels in mind.

Something about the place gave me the feeling that Britain is an unfree country, but sadly my notes were not good enough to remind me why. Still, that is an interesting idea for a blog post about what ‘freedom’ means anyway.

Köln feels very multicultural. In particular, Greek food seems very popular.

The edges of the city of Köln (yes, I did walk from the main train station to past the city limits, that took something like two hours) are as sudden and magnificent as those of a rural English town: A block of flats and then, suddenly, countryside.

In part of the city that feels rougher, more worn down. Noticeably more German flags. I wonder which is cause and which is effect, if either?

Dense traffic at 15:30. Mere coincidence that that is the UK’s school closing time, as I’ve read that German schools close “between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m.”.

While wandering, I took a wrong turn and I think I ended up on somebody’s driveway. They opened a window and shouted at me anyway, and I did my best to apologise, leave and blame my phone (which I was looking at while walking).

Some of the blocks of flats have a lot of visible chimneys on them. Sometimes I remember how incredibly fast technological progress has been, and how recently open fireplaces stopped being the main form of heating in the Western world. Chimneysweep is still an official job in Germany, and (I’m told, my German isn’t good enough to check), the law requires you to let Chimneysweeps in when they call on you — if you don’t have a fireplace, they check the gas systems for carbon monoxide etc.

I didn’t see any beggars in Zürich or Heidelberg, but I didn’t realise that I hadn’t seen them until I reached Köln and saw them again. Some of the city centre public transport stops smell faintly of urine. The centre is far too crowded for people like me; in retrospect, I’d say it felt as crowded as the popular parts of Manhattan, except that Manhattan was designed for it and Köln’s city centre is struggling with it. Don’t get me wrong — you don’t have to go far if you want relaxed, it’s just that you can’t get it in the immediate area around the cathedral.

On the Rhine, I saw what looks like a two part boat, where the nose of one is pushing into a U-shaped hole in the back of the other. I have no idea what that was about, and couldn’t get a good picture.

There’s a lot about Köln that reminded me of Sheffield in the UK. I have the impression that similarity is not merely superficial, that Köln really is to Germany as Sheffield is to the UK.

All in all, it just wasn’t that interesting a place compared to the other places I visited. So onward I went; the next destination was Luxembourg City, which took me through Trier. Trier was so bad that my diary says “Trier Hbf lacks the sophistication of many of the other German stations I’ve stopped at. Reminds me of a typical British station.”

New Year’s resolution

I need to blog more. This year I’ve been to:

  1. Paris (🇫🇷) for New Year’s celebrations, followed by a trip to Italy to see Milan (🇮🇹), Bologne (🇮🇹), and Venice (🇮🇹) before returning to Paris and from there to home
  2. Zürich (🇨🇭)
  3. Several towns and cities in the Brittany and Pays de la Loire regions of France, including Nantes (🇫🇷) and Angers (🇫🇷), as the main caregiver for my mother who was also on that trip
  4. Confuzzled, Birmingham (🇬🇧)
  5. A 1080 km cycle along the Rhine, taking me through (amongst other places) Hoek van Holland (🇳🇱), Rotterdam (🇳🇱), Randwijk (🇳🇱), Duisburg (🇩🇪), Köln (🇩🇪), Kestert (🇩🇪), Worms (🇩🇪), Hochstadt (🇩🇪), Lichtenau (🇩🇪), Village-Neuf (🇫🇷), and Basel (🇨🇭), before making a rapid series of Rhine crossings both ways, taking a few wrong turns, going up the worst possible not-a-mountain Swiss hill I could’ve chosen and being picked up by my friend from Zürich to hang out at his place and take a day trip to try (and fail) to reach the source of the Rhine near Andermatt (🇨🇭)
  6. California (🇺🇸), based mainly in Davis, including a multi-day road trip along the I-80 to Salt Lake City (Utah), returning via Reno (Nevada), camping one night more than expected in an unincorporated village near Redding whose name I can’t remember because the Carr Fire had literally begun a few hours before it diverted us to a much longer route to the next stop — McKinleyville — and a few days after that visiting Eureka as we returned to Davis, having a few day trips to Sacramento, and then seeing the Pacific coast of San Francisco
  7. Berlin (🇩🇪), because I’ve moved here to escape from the UK
  8. Cambridge (🇬🇧) (where I used to live) and Portchester (🇬🇧) (near family and old friends, and it has a castle)
  9. The Mediterranean coast of Spain, in particular the Orihuela Costa (🇪🇸), Cartagena (🇪🇸), and El Castell de Guadalest (🇪🇸)
  10. Helsinki (🇫🇮), where I was for New Year’s, but I didn’t have anyone around for the celebrations this time, and my flight home the next day was too early in the morning to be worth going out alone.

I need to finish off my original series of blog posts on the topic of travelling around Europe for a month on an Interrail pass just before the Brexit referendum vote before I do these in any detail.

 

Europe by rail, part 7 of 11: Altstadt Heidelberg and surrounds

Panorama from one of Heidelberg's bridges

Going from Zürich to Heidelberg by train, Freiburg looked a lot nicer when going past it northwards than it seemed going southwards.

The route required I change train at Manheim. Manheim station is far less commercial than the other city stations I’ve been to on this trip. In that regard, it almost felt like a British station. Manheim itself looks heavily industrialized, so I don’t think I’ll miss out if I don’t explore it.

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Panorama from one of Heidelberg’s bridges

Heidelberg is pretty. There are many bicycles here, often locked to themselves rather than to fences and bike racks, which implies low fear of crime than I’m used to in the UK.

On the walk from the station to the hotel I saw a motorcycle driving on the cycle path, something I’ve only otherwise seen in The Netherlands; I passed signs pointing to asparagus and potato without explanation… curiously followed by signs for asparagus and strawberries.

Surprisingly, a car used the bicycle lane to skip a queue and turn right. Very un-stereotypical for Germany. (I’ve since learned that the German word for someone who crosses the road without waiting for a green light is “Außlander” (foreigner), and while I don’t know how facetious they were being, it felt correct).

Open farm in Heidelberg 
Open farm in Heidelberg

North of the university, and close to my hotel, there were large open farms; think allotments but without any barriers. Presumably this is what the signs for strawberries, potatoes and asparagus were for, thought I have only seen the strawberries so far.

The university is pleasant; while it has plenty of dilapidated Brutalist buildings, many are covered in vines that make them look much nicer. Some of the nearby buildings — I’m not clear if they’re university or not — are much more modern. All look appealing.

The river has a large dam with a footbridge above it; the power and ferocity of the water flowing under the dam is terrifying to behold, even though it’s not even particularly tall — 4m difference in water level, I would guess.

I continued to be surprised by how many vegetarian options there are here. There’s so much good stuff!

One thing you don’t get from pictures is the smell of a place; and even in person, I often find I only notice it when it changes — when the UK suffered petrol shortages after truckers blockaded refineries in protest against taxes, the air quality massively improved, but I only noticed the improvement not the previous poor quality, and I didn’t notice it get worse again.

There is a cycle path south of the train station, just far enough away to be blocked from sight by buildings, where the air smells so much fresher and cleaner that I can almost imagine I’m in the wilderness, not the city centre. I wish I could fully describe what this place smelled like, but I never built up a good olfactory vocabulary.

There are some Arabic signs here and there, and I’ve seen far more black people living in Heidelberg than in Zürich. (Alas, between my notes and this being years later, I’m not sure if I meant “black” as in sub-saharan African decent or in the colloquial sense it has in the UK that also encompasses northern African, Middle-Eastern, and significant parts of the Indian subcontinent. Sorry about that — just as Posh Person Privilege means I don’t think to make note of which football team a person supports, White Privilege means I don’t really notice fine details of race unless it gets spelled out for me.)

The old city (Altstadt on OpenStreetMap) is a similar quaint style to the old city in Zurich, but without such dense crowds. It is full of old reddish stone and cobbled roads.

Heidelberg is a small-yet-pleasant place, although though I would recommend staying away from the immediate vicinity of the railway station. On that thought, perhaps I misjudged Utrecht earlier on this trip, having seen it only from passing through the station?

German vending machine which vends condoms
German vending machine which vends condoms

German vending machines sometimes stock condoms — Something I’ve never seen in the UK, and I suspect I will never see in the USA.

When I left for the next stop on the trip, I once again changed at Mannheim. The entrance hall of Mannheim station looks better than the rest of it, but I’m still not going to regret missing the chance to explore a city that seems dominated by such large industrial buildings.

I definitely recommend a break in Heidelberg to anyone who likes relaxed, historic, or close-(ish)-to-nature environments.

Europe by rail, part 6 of 11: I’d tell you a cheesy pun about Zürich, but you’d only poke holes in it

Strange noisy mechanical thing in Zürich, near Zürich Casino

Frankfurt to Zürich is hilly, and as I approached the border between Germany and Switzerland, the feel of the countryside out of the train windows changed — still nice, just different. Basel Bad has, if anything, more graffiti than any German city I’ve seen, but a significant fraction of it is very high quality. To my surprise, and against the stereotype I had of the country, Basel Switzerland also has graffiti.

Some passengers on the train are speaking Italian.

I saw a large ugly cooling tower (why do people hate wind turbines when this is the alternative?), an oriental temple (Buddhist?) looking out of place near a (Lidl supermarket?), and churches are more recognisable here than in Germany…either that or Germany has less churches than I thought. There is lots of graffiti here too — which, given the Swiss reputation, is even more of a surprise than it was in a border city like Basel — and a mixture of steep green hillsides (some with pretty houses) and utilitarian construction zones. I had just passed Aarau station while writing this, and wondered if I would later be able to find images of the temple and the cooling tower; the cooling tower I could not find, but Google Street View reveals the temple.

The train went on; we passed a three story wooden building, then a bona fide castle-on-a-hilltop.

I was staying with a friend who lives just south of Zürich itself, so transferred to a local train at the city centre; the main station is enormous, multi-level, filled with shops (of course), and easy to get lost in.

Leimbach station, a few stops south from Zürich, is next to a river; the river is crossed with a roofed bridge. I don’t think I’ve seen a roofed bridge in person before this. It was at this station that I noticed the train doors start opening just before the train stops.

My host has told me, to my surprise, that Swiss trains can be late, and apparently this is quite common in peak times.

Zürich city centre

First thought? “If Budapest were not so poor, it could have looked like this”.

Second thought, as I walked further from the train station, seeing the styles changed and became more… boring, samey, like all other cities. There was chewing gum ground into the pavement, a street pizza (didn’t see any of those in Germany!), roadworks, pedestrians jumping red lights, angy cars honking their horns. It was all quite conventional at that point, though fortunately such things were very limited and further wandering showed me better things very quickly afterwards.

Swiss (and German) pedestrian crossings are different from British ones: The German crossings seem to allow drivers to turn right through a red light, provided they give way to pedestrians (I don’t know if that’s official or just what everyone does in practice, after all the official UK speed limit is often exceeded by 10 mph if there aren’t any speed cameras); The Swiss lights explicitly signal green for cars and pedestrians, or at least some of them do.

By Roland zh, upload on 12. April 2009 [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Ganymede statue, By Roland zh, upload on 12. April 2009 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
There are public water fountains everywhere in the city (when I later came back, I found them everywhere in the country). In the UK, such fountains were closed permanently when they were found to spread disease. I’m told they are not just clear and safe here, but that Zürich has two entire water supply systems just in case of major contamination or catastrophe. The Zürich lakefront has a statue to Ganymede, which seems to be a popular spot for photos. The lake itself is large enough to have a horizon — flat — from which the distant mountains rise.

Police and (doctor/ambulance) emergency vehicles are fluorescent orange and white.

Housing

As mentioned, I’m staying at a friend’s flat. It has a communal laundry room which is surprisingly small for the building size, and local norms require you to wipe down the washing machine door after use. There’s a large empty room next to it, which I assume is for drying clothes without using the tumble dryer.

The flat is spacious by British standards, but correspondingly expensive. It’s up a hill on the same lake as Zürich, but about 5-10 minutes to Zürich HB by train.

Shops

Swiss shops close early, very early by British standards — the local corner shop will not be open at 20:50, whereas British ones are often open until 22:00 or 23:00. Garbage bags are restricted items, sold over the counter rather than off the shelf.

Post

Post boxes have what looks like instructions on how to print your own (QR code) stamps. Home deliveries seem to actually occur at a time when you are likely to be in.

Public transport

Public transport is a bunch of zones, but not like London. The zones of London are rings, the zones of Zürich are patches that could well have been the old cities and downs before urban sprawl turned them into a conurbation. The closest to a “single” ticket is one that covers you for an hour for a specific number of zones, while the closest to “return” tickets cover you for 24 hours on a set of zones.

That other people may use any of German, French and Italian is somewhat stressful for me, as I find my poor grasp of the languages an embarrassment (I have GCSE grade D in French, the equivalent of GCSE grade B in German (from Duolingo, self-tested with old GCSE past papers), and I never got very far with Italian on Duolingo.

On the outside of public toilets there are maps of the nearby public toilets, which is convenient. Less convenient is when they cost 1 CHF, although that’s not a universal fee.

Zürichhorn Casino has it’s own ferry port (there are many ports around the lake). The building itself looks like a fairly generic 2-3 story Brutalist building.

Strange noisy mechanical thing in Zürich, near Zürich Casino
Strange noisy mechanical thing in Zürich, near Zürich Casino

Everything is expensive here. It’s a bit like the price shock I had coming back to England from Kenya, even though it’s a much smaller difference (Kenya price shock was being charged more by a single ride in a UK airport taxi than all of the taxis combined from a week in Nairobi).

I wasn’t close enough to the lake to see how clear it was, but the rivers and streams in and out of the lake are very clear by British standards.

I’ve just seen a watering can being filled by one of the public water fountains. Later, a man filling a water bottle from one — I’m glad that’s normal, as I had done just that earlier in the day! (First time here as an adult, so I don’t know what locals consider ‘common sense’. It’s harder than it seems when it’s your own ‘common sense’).

There’s a street lined with a multitude of different flags. I only noticed two that matched each other, but there were so many I may have missed some. The street had a stone and photography shop, with 1200 CHF drones and 11,000 CHF camera lenses.

Pre-divided chocolate
Pre-divided chocolate

It took a long, long time before I found a real supermarket and not just brand shops and small corner shops — not that they didn’t exist, there was one just over the railway line from my friend’s flat and another around the corner from the railway station, but compared to the UK they’re hard to find (and both are, unlike the US, easy to reach on foot). The one near the station is a co-op, but a very different branding than the place of the same name in the UK or the (also mutually unrelated) place of the same name in the USA. Amongst other things, it sells savoury croissants with seeds. I had to get some chocolate, because that is one of the things Switzerland is famous for (that, and the other things being watches which I can’t afford; clocks and Alpenhorns which I don’t want; and what use would a tourist have with a Swiss bank account?). It turned out that one doesn’t need to break Swiss chocolate into squares, it comes pre-divided!

I met another beggar who was grateful to receive a bottle of water. Interesting. A man this time, but just like the (woman) in Frankfurt, my guess is he’s a refugee from the middle east. (As an aside: I’m editing this post about two years after the event, and it’s disappointing that “refugee from the middle east” is still a political issue).

An advert on a giant public screen showed a man on a skateboard being pulled along by a husky.

At the train station, everyone waiting to board leaves much more room for those disembarking than I have seen in Germany or Britain (I wasn’t enough paying attention to remember in any other country).

Hobbies in and around Zürich include paragliding
Hobbies in and around Zürich include paragliding

The Swiss are much chattier than the Germans, in that (excluding beggars) three strangers talked to me today and none talked to me in Germany. The next day, they continued to be chatty and generally helpful when I looked like the lost tourist that I was — replying to my broken German in English, in many cases.

I found my first broken Swiss urinal in the same WC as my first broken Swiss hand dryer. The Swiss concern for good function and cleanliness has turned out to be oddly specific.

There is an advert by the side of the road that turned out to be for a brothel, but that style of advert in the UK would imply a casino (the imagery was sexually implicit rather than explicit, compared to the UK where casinos do similar yet lap dancing clubs and sex shops seem to always have plain adverts and exteriors).

The plants, hedgerows, litter, graffiti, power lines, buildings and roads could easily all be British (with the exception of road signs and left-vs-right side driving); the hills are different (like Wales only more so), but flip a photo left to right and you might not know which country it is.

Plenty of red light running by pedestrians and cyclists alike, which underscores how rare that is in Germany. One instance of horse manure on the pavement so far, which says something about how close nature is to residential life here.

Just walked past a fairly unremarkable Microsoft office, at the almost-but-not-quite funny number 356.

It’s remarkable how many different architectural styles there are here, and also remarkable that they are geographically associated. No random mishmash here, but one place screams “England”, another “Budapest”, another is novel to me and I shall call it “Swiss”.

The statue of Ganymede has been decorated with clothes, nipple tape, and tin foil since I saw it two days ago.

I’ve found a vegetarian hot dog shop. It uses literal translation, so it says “Heiss Hund” — a strange name for the food, when you think about it.

I have finally found a single sex shop in this city, and it’s tiny, but the dildos can be seen from outside. My guess is that the Swiss are slightly more sexually liberal than the English, but much less than the Germans. A short walk and I saw one of the famous painted cows, a little further and I saw another sex shop with all the goods on open display. Perhaps the shops are as zoned as the architecture, or perhaps it’s just Hotelling’s law in action.

There aren’t many clearly obese people in Zürich.

USA 2017

(I know, I know, the Europe By Rail series isn’t complete, but I have notes for that, this needs to be written before it fades from my memory).

JFK AKA WTF NYC I-95

The weather was good on the day I arrived, giving me excellent views of NYC as I landed, and of the USA-Canada border before that (at least, I assume that is what I saw, an avenue of cut down trees in right sort of place). America is a place of wide roads and detached houses, of on-street parking/turning circles that would contain entire blocks of flats (and associated parking) in the UK.

Also golf courses. Lots of golf courses. What is it with the New York area and golf courses?

When I landed at JFK airport, I spent ages waiting to pass through border control. I didn’t need to, but the explanation of why I didn’t need to happened while I was exhausted near the end of a 7 hour flight. Still, it didn’t matter much: thanks to NYC traffic, my partner Sadie arrived at the airport about 30 minutes after I’d collected my bags.

The hotel was pleasant enough, but unremarkable. Small gym, serve your own breakfast, waffle maker, breakfast hall had a TV — just what I’ve come to expect from my first two trips.

Connetiquet Conneticut Connecticut

My first two trips to the USA were to SFO. Those times, I wasn’t used to how vast and empty states could be, but this time round I wasn’t used to how small they could be. The trip through Connecticut was slow and dull, as the morning gave us torrential rain which left pools of water on the I-95 large enough that the freeway was, in several places, reduced down to a single lane: the hard shoulder. Despite that, by the afternoon we had crossed two state borders (NY-CT, CT-RI) and were half way across Rhode Island.

We stopped for a pizza for lunch near the middle of Connecticut. One of the things that continues to surprise me about the USA is how expensive food is. Petrol and diesel may be cheap, but… wow, that doesn’t make up for the food (let alone big expenses like the USA’s infamously overpriced medical insurance). For restaurants and supermarkets both, American food feels twice the price for half the quality of the UK equivalent — the quality of Lidl and the price of Waitrose. (Nothing against either of those stores in the UK, one’s very cheap and the other is very nice, but the combination is not one that reflects well on the USA).

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Spot the differences between the Old World and the New.

The only really noteworthy thing I realised in (or was it near?) Connecticut was understanding why the whole area is known as New England: its green foliage and slightly mossy rocks are very familiar to anyone from England.

Rhode Island

We met up with Sadie’s aunt and uncle in Providence, Rhode Island. They lent us their car (well, her mother’s, Sadie’s grandmother’s), the quality of which also surprised me: ancient, falling to bits. Not as poor a condition as the “friend of the family” taxi in Nairobi, but still shockingly bad by British standards. This is not a poor family, yet the car had multiple warning lights every time it was switched on, and the key literally fell apart one time we tried to take it out of the ignition. Still, the car got us around and didn’t break down on us.

Providence seems like a nice place. Poor, but nice. Everyone was cheerful and friendly, despite the slightly run-down look of the Federal Hill district and of the street we stayed in just on the other side of the Woonasquatucket River.

Despite the outward similarity of New England to Ye Olde England, the temperatures are much higher. In the UK, there might be two days in any three years where the weather is hot enough to benefit from air conditioning in your home, every day in New England was that hot. (Of course, in winter it normally goes below freezing, which is rarer, although not unheard of, in the UK).

Boston

In Boston, we stayed with Sadie’s grandmother. The house was an old wooden structure, three floors including the occupied roof area, and elevated from the ground around it by about half a story. There was almost no lighting, and as with the car, it felt very run-down for someone with her wealth.

Central Boston is a lovely place. Didn’t go into the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum because it was too expensive, and unfortunately forgot to plan a trip to see the USS Constitution despite meaning to. I had planned to buy a teabag and borrow a fishing rod and a teacup and film my own Boston Tea Party, but in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t — such a cliché.

We did get to see the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which was crowded and very American: lots of sugary baked goods, not much sign of fruit or vegetables.

The subway line between home and city centre (“so that’s what ‘downtown’ means!”) felt as if it was used by rough people, and I didn’t feel safe on it, although how much of that is just culture shock I can’t tell. (As an aside, for all the complaints I hear about the London Underground, it is joint top with Paris and Berlin as one of the nicest metro systems I’ve used; Boston, BART, and NYC metros all feel like nice people aren’t supposed to use them, while Budapest sits between them, stuck in an 1890s time capsule).

Cambridge

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Only Cambridge residents will understand this photo.

We met up with one of Sadie’s Green Party associates, and he walked us around Cambridge MA. As I’m living in (close enough) the original Cambridge, it wasn’t too impressive. Still, I did get a few curious photos of American Cambridge and first noticed a Greek motif that kept popping up throughout the trip.

When the friend brought us back to Boston (i.e. across the bridge), we went to the oddly named “Legal Sea Foods” (what’s the alternative, illegal sea foods?)

Tappens Beach and the closed rock

Sign saying 'Rock Closed'

Rhode Island has a lot of coast for its size. Sadie’s family took me to Tappens Beach, a perfectly good beach with some large rocks (shown in photo; watch out for the poison ivy), and one of those rocks has two diving boards bolted to it. Everyone except me jumped in. I almost miss being that fearless.

Manomet

Manomet beach

Manomet seems to be a place for rich people to have their holiday homes, and for poor people to service their tourism holiday needs. I had fun, mainly because I was staying at Sadie’s aunt’s holiday home. That side of the family joined us after we’d been relaxing there a few hours, playing on the trampoline and preparing dinner for everyone (not at the same time).

When we saw Manomet bay, it was wonderfully foggy. We could see an arch of beach, a few fishing boats anchored in the bay, but no horizon.

The bay itself seems to be known as the one place in America where July 4th is celebrated on July 3rd. To quote Wikipedia:

Tradition dictates that these bonfires be extinguished by the rising tide, so depending on the moon, the festivities may extend well into the night, or end relatively early.

I had a chance to try archery for the first time as an adult. While it was fun, bows and arrows are rather less potent weapons than I had been led to believe by fiction: I was firing shooting into a rotting wooden door that had been taken off its hinges and taken to the back of the garden, drawing the string as far back as I could, from a distance of about three meters, and still a third of the arrows bounced off or just plain missed, and about a third of those that did get stuck in the door managed to go through holes between planks that made up the structure. Also notable, it’s easy to hold the bow mostly drawn, but the last few centimetres have most of the difficulty; they are also the most important for power. Also-also notable, arrows fall off the side of the bow very easily.

Newark

Confusingly, going between New York and Newark by train, you get on at New York Pennsylvania Station and get off at Newark Pennsylvania Station.

If you can, use the metro line instead: the PATH red line is about half the price of the rail ticket (the main difference is that unlike the train, the main terminal is the World Trade Center). We didn’t know this, and ended up getting one ticket and then the other.

We went to Newark for an event that Sadie was very interested in and was thrilled by the chance to attend, although it’s probably not one to be discussed on a blog like this. While she did that, I explored the city centre: It’s a nice enough city, although it is really surprising to a Brit like me how clearly racially segregated it all is, and how hurt African Americans are: signs with comments along the lines of “don’t tell me you love my culture when you hate me”, that sort of thing.

It was much easier to walk around Newark city than Cupertino, even though Newark had wider roads, because the drivers were much more pedestrian-aware.

NYC

Oh, so much stuff.

(Gee, what a surprise!)

The hotel was tiny in comparison to the one just across the water in Newark. If you’re looking to be a tourist, the Newark Hilton is a) connected to the the station, b) as cheap as the cheapest New York hotel that is actually a hotel and not a hostel, and c) the PATH metro is only a few dollars per person per day.

Central park is huge. I mean really huge. It’s large enough that a third of the way in from the side, you don’t feel like you’re in a city any more.

Oh, and there’s a castle in the park: Belvedere Castle, a folly that’s served as a weather station, amongst other things.

The subway (metro, not food chain) is hot, loud, rushed. The crowding level was surprising: it was more crowded near our hotel (80th Street) than it was in Lower Manhattan.

To try and fit as much sightseeing in as I could with my limited time, I took the subway to the South Ferry station and walked as far up as I could.

I saw the famous Bull, along with the attendant crowd of other tourists also taking photos of it. It’s just a statue of a bull. There’s probably some irony about a loudly (even if not strictly officially) Christian nation like the USA having a statue of a bull as a tourist attraction, but there we go.

Next up was the 9/11 memorial. It’s both spectacular and refined. Two large square holes in the ground, waterfalls on all sides flowing to an inner pool, both which have a smaller square hole in their middles for the water to drain into in another four-sided waterfall. All surrounded by the names of the deceased, carved into stone (metal?) topping a wall around the waterfalls. Of course, being America, there was also a poster next to it advertising compensation lawyers with the text “9/11 isn’t over”.

NY City Hall: There’s a public park that looks like it should connect to the grounds, but the hall is closed to the public. The park has some unusual artwork in it, including a giant cardboard cutout of some bacteria.

Broadway: Not that broad. Lots of shops, lots of roadworks. I got my cities mixed up and thought, for some reason, that Broadway rather than Hollywood had the walk of fame with the stars’ names in the sidewalk.

Union Square Park: Nothing particularly special about this one. Typical American scale, typical American city architecture around it. Big sign that didn’t show up too well on my camera. I totally failed to appreciate the art, and assumed the sign was something financial like USA national debt (although it was too big even for that), and that the only real art was the weird ripple with gold and lines to the right of the numbers.

Flatiron Building: Freaky shape, nice to have finally seen it in person and not just photographs.

Madison Square Park: There was some sort of event on, with food stalls. I couldn’t buy anything, having spent my last $3 of cash the previous day in Central Park.

Empire State Building: Perhaps because it rapidly narrows after only 5 floors, it looks smaller when you get there, despite being enormous and clearly visible from further away.

Bryant Park: behind NY Public Library, it’s a nice, pleasant-looking place. I was in a bit of a rush to meet Sadie for dinner by this point so I didn’t go in, but it had a good vibe to it. It, combined with the surrounding skyscrapers, had a bit of a Singapore vibe to it.

Time Square, Broadway: Surprisingly well lit, given the sun had yet to set. Very crowded. Street sellers of “my band’s latest CD”. Lively, wealthy… and yet, another place that felt like poverty was just around the corner.

~

Somewhere along that walk, although I didn’t take a note of where, there was a public protest against infant circumcision. Americans reading this may be surprised to learn that quite a lot other nations basically don’t do circumcision: from a British perspective, for example, circumcision is a strange weird custom done by foreigners.

~

The next day was the day of my flight home, but I had a chance to see a little more before the airport. Just across the road from the new World Trade Center building and the 9/11 memorial is a site, I guess it might be a shopping mall, called Brookfield Place, whose main feature is the “Winter Garden”. The Winter Garden has 16 palm trees and feels neither wintery nor gardeny.

Europe by rail, part 5 of 11: Meet Frankfurt

Where I walked in Frankfurt
Where I walked in Frankfurt.

The train from Hannover to Frankfurt was pleasant enough, but all the seats were taken. The countryside we passed was mostly beautiful rolling hills, and just a few ugly man-made hills.

Frankfurt Hbf itself  instantly reminded me of Paris Gare du Nord (the Eurostar terminal). Different, but somehow very similar.

There were news broadcast on a giant screen, I couldn’t read it but the pictures were showing floods. There had been a bit of rain the previous day in Hannover, with more was forecast for today, but the only rain I had seen by this point of the day was in and near Frankfurt itself; the route was almost completely dry.

There was a book, sold in one of the shops of Frankfurt Hbf, with the title “Die Again”, and I wondered if the title was in English or in German. I never did pick it up to find out.

The shops in city station are very multicultural: In the station area I saw African and Asian, American, German (and the Germans seem to like pizza and pasta the way the British like fish ‘n chips and Indian); next to my hotel there was “Bosnische Spezialitären Čevabdžinica Sarajevo Imbiss”, and then two Arabic places with names I can’t even write. There are two major shopping malls, the main (I think) mall, “MyZeil”, is a fantastic piece of architecture, and the info points inside it are trilingual English-German-Chinese. Thai, Iranian, Mediterranean, Malaysian and other shops and restaurants on the road between the train station and the city centre.

The city centre is surrounded by a narrow strip of greenery, public parks and so forth, that look on the map as if they were the former city walls.

“The city centre itself has a lovely atmosphere”, I wrote while walking through it. Of course, having written that, once I got back to the train station the escalator had stopped moving and smelled of urine (albeit nowhere near as bad as the smell in Portsmouth). There are less beggars here than either Berlin or Hannover, at least at first glance. There were many skyscrapers that felt like skyscrapers, but without the oppressive-bombastic feel of those in San Jose, San Francisco, or Sacramento, without the cramped feel of London.

While in Frankfurt, I think I finally figured out why I prefer German blocks of flats to British ones: the outsides are just cleaner. In Britain, a significant fraction of flats (certainly the larger blocks in city centres) have ugly stains under under every window and every external pipe, whereas the German ones are either completely clean or covered in a perfectly even layer of dirt that hides the fact it’s even dirt — the British stains looks like a sewage accidents in comparison.

Other than the handful of skyscrapers, Frankfurt seems to be mostly 4-7 story buildings, but it still feels friendly in a way that central London, which is about the same vertically, never is. And in comparison to America? A three lane by six lane cross-roads felt safe to cross here, compared to the feeling of risking life and limb crossing from one corner of the two main roads of the Apple Maps icon to the other.

The only emergency fire/ambulance vehicles I’ve seen so far in Germany have used a fluorescent orange and white colour scheme. Looks like Ambulances are branded by the hospital they’re associated with, but I’m not sure. Seeing them made me realise that if I were to move to Germany, I would need health insurance (UK has “national insurance” which is a tax, and taxes pay for healthcare amongst other things), so perhaps the effective tax rate is more complicated than I thought. (Well of course it will be complicated, why ever did I imagine it might be simple?)

I had to read a news story about the German far-right political group AfD to notice this point, but while Britain has plenty of visible Muslims and mosques, I’ve not noticed a single mosque in Germany for all the Muslims I’ve seen while walking around the cities. A relatively small number of churches, too, now I think about it.

Frankfurt Hbf has so many platforms that three streets face the entrance, parallel with the tracks. One night’s jaunt took me back through the southern street, Münchener Straße; the next day’s walk took me back through the northern street, Taunusstraße.

Taunusstraße is the red light and casino district. Plymouth has a red light district that I’ve walked through without even knowing it was one until the street was named as such in the local news. Amsterdam is famous for its red light district, but again it was so easy to miss that when the naked women in its glass shop fronts remain stationary, they look like shop mannequins and it just feels like any other part of Amsterdam (that said, when the women tire of standing still and change pose just as you walk past, it’s as if a mannequin has come to life next to you).

Taunusstraße just feels seedy — nothing explicitly upsetting, just tacky, gaudy, and unsophisticated, like the rides of a travelling funfair.

As I was writing up for the day, I heard some shouting on the street outside, and the deep rumble of a motorbike whose only purpose is to make the owner feel big — so, just like Britain. Overall, I think Frankfurt is like a good British city, not as different or as nice (by my tastes) as Hannover, Berlin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, etc., which is worth knowing and the entire point of this trip. Score!

Fire brigades have their own emergency doctors with their own emergency vehicles. That’s something you don’t see in the UK.